I finally got a chance to read the September 17 New Yorker article, “Crybabies: Solving the colic conundrum,” which is definitely worth a look, even if the title is somewhat misleading. The colic conundrum is by no means solved in this article (the cause and the cure remain as elusive as ever) but the primary researcher featured in the article does provide some advice about dealing with colicky babies. Barry Lester, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, suggests that while in the past people regarded colic as a physical or medical problem, he regards it as a behavioral disorder that affects “not just the baby but the parent-infant relationship.” You can read an abstract of the article here.
Since colic is still largely a mystery to physicians too, you might as well diagnose it yourself using criteria developed in 1954 by Yale pediatrician Morris Wessel: crying by an otherwise healthy infant that lasts more than three hours a day more than three days a week, for more than three weeks.
Lester hypothesizes that some infants who suffer from colic are “hypersensitive to normal stimuli” and that even physical contact with their parents is unlikely to soothe them. He suggests that parents of colicky babies need to refrain from going to their babies each time they cry so that the babies can learn to soothe themselves.
Lester’s advice might fly in the face of attachment parenting gurus, but after you read the anecdote about Juliana, whose 8-week-old daughter cried 15 hours a day and allowed her mother about an hour and a half of sleep each night, it seems reasonable to let the baby do some solo crying too. (In the article, Pamela High, another professor of pediatrics at Brown advised Julianna to first try to determine if her baby was hungry or wet or wanted to suck or be cuddled. But after she’d done all that, High suggested putting the baby down “in a safe place for 5 or 10 minutes so she can learn to calm herself.”)
I can’t imagine having to leave an under-three-month-old to cry for any length of time, but if we were facing round two with a super colicky baby I'd be tempted to give the self-soothing thing a try.
In one of Lester’s studies 75 percent of colicky babies later suffered from behavioral problems, "including limited attention span, tantrums, and irritation after being touched or coming in contact with particular fabrics or tags in their clothing.” Lester says the way parents interact with colicky infants can exacerbate the problem: "Colic threatens to cause problems in the child's ability to form relationships, because the child doesn't learn behavioral regulation and develops problems with impulse control."
We never got around to labeling Will as colicky – but looking back he probably did cry for something close to a total of three hours a day for a few days of the week for a few of the worst weeks (the first three months felt like a struggle and they make life with Owen feel like a walk in the park). Whether or not he had colic, Will definitely got constant attention from us as he cried in those early months, so maybe there is something linking that early lack of self-soothing to his periodic tantrums today. (It also seems plausible that kids born with super-sensitive temperaments simply continue to have super-sensitive temperaments as toddlers and so get unreasonably upset when things don’t fit their super-sensitive ideas about what they want and need).
If Will did have colic, it was a mild version of it. As I read about mothers of constantly crying babies, it’s no wonder to me that so many of them wind up depressed (another study mentioned in the article points out that maternal depression and colicky infants were high predictors of one another). How terrible to feel that you can almost never be of comfort to your tiny baby.
The good news if you got one of those colicky baby/tantruming toddler packages? By the time they are adults, they don’t tend to exhibit behavioral problems. So at some point, maybe right around the time they’re packing up for college???, all will be peaceful once again.
Were your tantruming toddlers colicky babies? Any advice from my-baby-had-colic-but-I-survived mothers out there?